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Relative pronouns and relative clauses

Level: beginner

The relative pronouns are:

Subject Object Possessive
who who/whom whose
which which whose
that that -

We use relative pronouns to introduce relative clauses. Relative clauses tell us more about people and things:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
This is the house which Jack built.
Marie Curie is the woman that discovered radium.

We use:

  • who and whom for people
  • which for things
  • that for people or things.

Two kinds of relative clause

There are two kinds of relative clause:

1.  We use relative clauses to make clear which person or thing we are talking about:

Marie Curie is the woman who discovered radium.
This is the house which Jack built.

In this kind of relative clause, we can use that instead of who or which:

Marie Curie is the woman that discovered radium.
This is the house that Jack built.

We can leave out the pronoun if it is the object of the relative clause:

This is the house that Jack built. (that is the object of built)

Relative pronouns 1

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Relative pronouns 2

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Be careful!

The relative pronoun is the subject/object of the relative clause, so we do not repeat the subject/object:

Marie Curie is the woman who she discovered radium.
(who is the subject of discovered, so we don't need she)

This is the house that Jack built it.
(that is the object of built, so we don't need it)

2.  We also use relative clauses to give more information about a person, thing or situation:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.
I met Rebecca in town yesterday, which was a nice surprise.

With this kind of relative clause, we use commas (,) to separate it from the rest of the sentence.

Be careful!

In this kind of relative clause, we cannot use that:

Lord Thompson, who is 76, has just retired.
(NOT Lord Thompson, that is 76, has just retired.)

and we cannot leave out the pronoun:

We had fish and chips, which I always enjoy.
(NOT We had fish and chips, I always enjoy.)

Relative pronouns 3

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Relative pronouns 4

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Level: intermediate

whose and whom

We use whose as the possessive form of who:

This is George, whose brother went to school with me.

We sometimes use whom as the object of a verb or preposition:

This is George, whom you met at our house last year.
(whom is the object of met)

This is George’s brother, with whom I went to school.
(whom is the object of with)

but nowadays we normally use who:

This is George, who you met at our house last year.
This is George’s brother, who I went to school with.

Relative pronouns 5

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Relative pronouns with prepositions

When who(m) or which have a preposition, the preposition can come at the beginning of the clause:

I had an uncle in Germany, from who(m) I inherited a bit of money.
We bought a chainsaw, with which we cut up all the wood.

or at the end of the clause:

I had an uncle in Germany, who(m) I inherited a bit of money from.
We bought a chainsaw, which we cut all the wood up with.

But when that has a preposition, the preposition always comes at the end:

I didn't know the uncle that I inherited the money from.
We can't find the chainsaw that we cut all the wood up with.

Relative pronouns 6

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when and where

We can use when with times and where with places to make it clear which time or place we are talking about:

England won the World Cup in 1966. It was the year when we got married.
I remember my twentieth birthday. It was the day when the tsunami happened.

Do you remember the place where we caught the train?
Stratford-upon-Avon is the town where Shakespeare was born.

We can leave out when:

England won the World Cup in 1966. It was the year we got married.
I remember my twentieth birthday. It was the day the tsunami happened.

We often use quantifiers and numbers with relative pronouns: 

all of which/whom most of which/whom many of which/whom
lots of which/whom a few of which/whom none of which/whom
one of which/whom two of which/whom etc.

She has three brothers, two of whom are in the army.
I read three books last week, one of which I really enjoyed.
There were some good programmes on the radio, none of which I listened to.

 

Comments

Hello again zhouyoumin,

I have heard both forms used in modern English. My own preference is for 'is', which keeps 'who' as a third-person form. For example, all of these sound perfectly fine to me:

It is Paul who is in charge here.

It is you who is in charge here.

It is I who is in charge here.

 

However, a sentence like this one sounds very unnatural to me:

It is I who am in charge here.

 

The example 'It was you who stole the money' does not help in any way because 'stole' is a past form, and so has no marker for person. However, you could say 'It is you who steals the money'.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Hello,I had a test today and i'm not sure about one question:

Keisha is the youngest of her 3 sisters.She was born in 1995.

Please answer me as fast as possible.

Hello Gospodincoek,

We'll be happy to give you some advice but I can't see what your question is. What did you have to do in the test?

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

There has been a bit of a commotion in Sri Lanka about the use of a relative clause in Britain. In the Conservative Party's election manifesto, a relative clause beginning with 'where' has been used after a list of words, separated by a comma from the last word of the list. In Sri Lanka, the understanding is that the relative clause in this case refers to the whole list, though according to the Conservative Party, the relative clause only applies to the last word in the list. The sentence is-
"We will continue to support international initiatives to achieve reconciliation, stability and justice across the world, and in the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East, where we maintain our support for a two-state solution."

Now, what is the grammar rule, which if taught in SL schools, would have helped to avoid the misunderstanding?

Hello Darshanie Ratnawalli,

In my opinion, the sentence is ambiguous. The relative clause refers to the item preceding it, but this could be the entire list ("the former conflict zones such as Cyprus, Sri Lanka and the Middle East") or it could be only the final item ("the Middle East").

Because the sentence is ambiguous, the only way to identify the referent would be to check other sources to confirm party policy.

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Former English instructor here.
I came across a headline this morning on a major news organization and cringed at the error on the front webpage main article of the day. It needs the word "what" inserted. I also want to identify the grammar structure and thought at first it was a relative pronoun. However, after perusing the standard list of relative pronouns, I thought secondly that it was missing an object pronoun....But I don't know if that is right either.

In the below headline, if we insert "what" between "in" and "he", what grammar tool/structure is "what"?
I cannot upload a simple screen shot here so I will copy the headline and provide a link to CNN.
https://------------------------------------------------------------------------
"The President must decide whether to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refuse to take part in [WHAT] he says is a sham"

Hello Fleep,

You are quite correct that there is an error in the sentence. In fact, I would say that there is a second error. In the sentence as written the refusal relates to the lawyers, whereas it should relate to the President:

...to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refuse to take part... [the lawyers participate or refuse]

...to legitimize the impeachment inquiry by allowing his lawyers to participate or refusing to take part... [the President allows or refuses]

 

As far as the structure goes, what he says is a sham is a relative clause. This type of relative clause is a free relative clause, that is to say it is a relative clause which does not refer directly back to an element in the sentence.

You can read more about bound and free relative clauses here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Relative_clause#Bound_and_free

 

Peter

The LearnEnglish Team

Ah yes there are two errors. And first time I heard of "free" relative clauses. Thanks.

I don’t understand whom

Hello Boaz

I'll explain it in a little more detail for you to see if that helps. 'whom' is only used when the person is talks about is the object of a verb. For example, in the sentence 'This is George, whom you met at our house last year', 'whom' is the object of the verb 'met'.

In contrast, in the sentence 'George is the man who is sitting near the door', 'who' is the subject of the verb 'is sitting'.

One other important detail is that nowadays it's very common for people to say 'who' instead of 'whom'. In other words, the first sentence could also be 'This is George, who you met at our house last year' and still be correct.

I hope this helps. If not, please ask us a specific question so we can better help you.

All the best

Kirk

The LearnEnglish Team

 

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